Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Better to Lose Now than Never Win

I promised more on the Old Spice Classic, and after the recent story about Ibrahima Thomas leaving Oklahoma St., I want to start with a little more discussion on the Cowboys.

Oklahoma St. has been a team in transition for several years. First, there was the embarrassing quest to get Eddie Sutton to 800 wins despite his not being present on the sideline. Then Sean Sutton took over, and despite the presence of two McDonald’s All American guards (Byron Eaton and James Anderson), Sutton’s team posted back-to-back losing Big 12 marks and failed to make the NCAA tournament.

Perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin for Sutton was the Cowboys 19-game road losing streak. While the Cowboys were good enough to beat good teams at home, (including Texas and Kansas), questionable road losses to struggling teams like Nebraska and Iowa St. ultimately cost the younger Sutton his job.

In the off-season, the team made a large play to bring Bill Self home, but was largely rebuffed. Ultimately the team hired Travis Ford from UMass. At the time I questioned the hire. Travis Ford had clearly had a good season at UMass (the team was runner-up in the post-season NIT), and Travis Ford clearly had UMass moving in the right direction, but I still thought he could use some more seasoning in A-10 play before moving on to a tough job in the Big 12 South. But the last few weeks have given me reasons for optimism in Stillwater, although perhaps not this season.

The main thing I noticed in Orlando was how some players on the Oklahoma St. team seemed to run the offense and how some players were still focused on doing their own thing. Even a junior college transfer who was injured much of last season, Anthony Brown, looked like a decent player when the team would run their offense and move the ball. But as usual, my favorite target, Byron Eaton was not interested in running Ford’s offense. Eaton posted terrible numbers in the tournament (including 0-10 against Siena), but the biggest disappointment was the Gonzaga game. In a game Oklahoma St. could have easily won, Eaton was 2 of 15 from the field and 1 of 7 from the free throw line. And while he contributed 10 assists, he also coughed up 6 turnovers. Basically, I spent the opening game against Gonzaga laughing at how bad things would happen every time Eaton touched the ball and how crisp the Oklahoma St. offense looked when he didn’t have the ball. (According to Jimmie Tramel Eaton has lost his Mojo.)

But as the tournament progressed, I began to see some reason for optimism for both Eaton and his role on the team. In particular, when 5’10” Keiton Page was on the floor which allowed Eaton to move to an off-guard position, the offense really seemed to run smoothly. The key for Eaton’s role is to understand what he can and cannot do for the team. Eaton has spent 4 years learning different systems, or trying to score without a system. And at this point he is basically a one-on-one player. Most of the time Oklahoma St. should be running the offense and getting the ball to its playmakers, Obi Muonelo and Terrell Harris. But in situations where Harris and Muonelo are shut down and when the playclock is running down, that’s when you want the ball in Eaton’s hands. Eaton won’t necessarily get you the highest percentage shot, but he can make things happen in pressure situations and against good defenses, and that is incredibly valuable.

To the extent that Page and the other guards can run the offense, and limit Eaton’s role, I think Oklahoma St. may actually be slightly under-rated. But to the extent that the Cowboys continue to let him pad his stats and ignore what is good for the team, the team could be in for a long season.

But how does this all relate to the team’s release of center Ibrahima Thomas this week? Was he one of the players who didn’t know how to run the offense in Orlando? The reality is that I don’t know. I didn’t see much of him on the floor. Thomas seemed to be on a personal mission to foul out for most of the Old Spice Classic.

But I like the bigger statement that Travis Ford made by releasing Thomas from the team. He basically said that if you aren’t committed to helping us get better, if you aren’t committed to the principles that will lead us to win, then I’d rather play without you. Certainly this will hurt in the short-run. Oklahoma’s lack of size may be catastrophic in Big 12 play. But in the long-run, it should send a message to the rest of the team that the old lackadaisical approach is over. The days of going one-on-one, and ignoring what is good for the team, are over. Next year and down the road this will make Oklahoma St. better. And maybe even this year, if the team learns to accentuate Eaton’s strengths, maybe he can still make the key play they’ll need late in the season.

Certainly, absent the facts, I do not wish harm on Ibrahima Thomas. If I had more information, I may not condone his dismissal from the team at all. But given the need for Travis Ford to not only change the system, but also to reinstate a winning culture in Stillwater, I applaud the move.